Was Will Rogers, an internationally admired entertainer and commentator of the early twentieth century, skeptical enough? He was known to say, “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” This is the most common line attributed to him in print. But did he routinely check the next day’s papers for a list of corrections to find out if what he “learned” from the papers the previous day had been changed? Few people look at the corrections, including myself.
Books are another area for skepticism. Mark Twain said, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Old books on science are risky to read because science is updated continually. Today’s reports of a medical “breakthrough” may be refuted by tomorrow’s science.
If a “doctor” in a white lab coat on TV holds up a bottle of pills and says, “This miracle product will allow you to lose ten pounds a month, safely!” would you believe the product would actually work? Apparently enough viewers do believe such huckster claims; otherwise such TV spots would not be aired.
Claims on talk radio and similar opinion sessions on some cable TV “news” shows are passed off under the guise of news when they are nothing more than extreme political views of the far right or left. Propaganda is often all it is. Many people who hold similar views are of course drawn to such opinion, repeat it to their friends and neighbors as fact, and act as if the embraced opinions are factual when often they are not.
Strongly held beliefs that are often passed from one generation to another become “facts” or “pure knowledge” in the minds of the holders, when a preponderance of evidence may show them to be untrue or in reality without foundation. The nineteenth century English writer Charlotte Bronte said, “I am always easy of belief when the creed pleases me.” Two modern-day examples of beliefs that are now soundly refuted by exhaustive, widespread scientific studies are (a) that global warming is a fallacy and (b) that childhood immunizations can cause autism. While some people insist that these beliefs are true, they simply are not. Humanity’s collective failure to accept the truth can be devastating. Increasingly warm global temperatures coupled with increasingly widespread ultra-destructive storms and severe weather extremes such as spreading drought and rapidly melting ice caps causing rising sea levels call for global action that is simply not being taken on an adequate scale.
Continuing skepticism of the truth due to contrary beliefs or just plain ignorance can be deadly, not just dead wrong. I wish this were just a pessimistic view, but available evidence suggests it is reality.
So skepticism that leads to seeking truth over myth is a useful and necessary thing if we are to continue to learn and grow. And skepticism that outlives its usefulness when truth is long denied may undo us.
I want to be optimistic about humanity’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. But alarm bells are going off that often seem to be paid little heed by enough leaders and their followers.